Kids online

A parent's guide to monitoring computer use

By Mark Carpenter

My daughter is still in diapers, but she’s already fascinated with computers. She’s especially fond of looking at pictures of herself—in fact, whenever she sees my wife’s laptop, she points and says, “baby…baby…baby” to get her own personal slide show.

I can see the day when we’ll be buying her a computer of her own, and dreading the prospect of what untold horrors await her foray into the digital realm. Fortunately, Parental Controls is a feature in Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, and Windows Vista Ultimate that offers a little peace of mind—at least as far as knowing what she's doing on the computer. Parental controls let you choose what your kids are allowed to do, and just as importantly, what they are not allowed to do.

First things first

The most important thing is to make sure that each child has an individual user account on every computer he or she uses. That way you can control what your children have access to.

It’s also important to use passwords, particularly if you’ve got more than one child and want to have different Parental Controls settings for each. An account is only as secure as its password, so you should make sure that each account has its own. That goes for you too—make your administrator password strong and hard to guess.

Setting up Parental Controls

Setting up Parental Controls is pretty straightforward. You need to have at least one administrator account, and each of the accounts for which you want to turn on Parental Controls must be a standard user account. Once you’ve created the user accounts, you need to turn on Parental Controls for each account, and then customize the controls for each one.

To turn on Parental Controls for a user account

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Click the user account for which you want to turn on Parental Controls.

  3. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

Once you’ve turned on Parental Controls for the account, you can adjust the settings to suit your needs. There are four areas that you can customize: access to web content, time limits, access to specific games, and access to specific programs.

Picture of the Parental Controls main page
From this page, you can change settings for individual accounts
Show all

Controlling access to content on the web

Let’s face it, the web can be a scary place and it’s difficult to know what your kids are looking at. With the Windows Vista Web Filter you can restrict certain types of web content and help make sure children visit only age-appropriate sites. You can also block or allow specific websites and specify whether your kids can download files.

To automatically block web content

The Windows Vista Web Filter rates the content of websites, and it can block some websites based on specific criteria that you set. For more information about the Windows Vista Web Filter, see How does the Parental Controls web filter work?

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Windows Vista Web Filter.

  4. Click Block some websites or content.

  5. Under Block web content automatically, click the content level you want.

To control access to specific websites

You can also specify specific websites to allow or block.

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Windows Vista Web Filter.

  4. Click Block some websites or content.

  5. Click Edit the Allow and Block list.

  6. In the Website address box, type the address for the website you want to allow or block, and then click Allow or Block.

Setting time limits

Just like it sounds. You can set the hours that your children can be logged on to the computer. If they try to log on at other times, they’ll get a message saying that they’re not allowed to log on. If they’re logged as their time limit approaches, they’ll get warnings that they’re about to be kicked off. As a parent (and as the computer administrator), you can always override the settings—for example, if your child has an important paper due the next day.

Picture of the Parental Controls time limits page
In this example, Iris is prevented from using the computer between 8:00 P.M. and 7:00 A.M.

To set up time limits

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Time Limits.

  4. In the grid, click the hours that you want to block.

Limiting the games that your children can play

Games are the reason why many kids want to have their own computer. How are you supposed to know which games are appropriate for kids? One way is to check the ratings. Most countries or regions have ratings boards, which establish standard ratings that are applied to games before they are sold. You can use the ratings to help determine whether a particular game is appropriate or not. Don’t rely on ratings alone though, because they’re still subjective.

To control games based on ratings

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Games.

  4. Under Can <person's name> play games?, click Yes.

  5. Under Block (or allow) games by rating and content types, click Set game ratings.

  6. Choose the rating level that you want to allow.

You can also use content descriptors to help you determine whether a game is appropriate for your kids. Content descriptors are standard descriptions of the content that a game contains—content that some people might find objectionable for children.

To control games based on content descriptors

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Games.

  4. Under Can <person's name> play games?, click Yes.

  5. Under Block (or allow) games by rating and content types, click Set game ratings.

  6. Under Block these types of content, select the content categories that you want to block.

Choosing the programs that your children have access to

You might want to control which programs your kids have access to. For example, I've been using Microsoft Money at home for years, and I'd like to restrict access to that program. Also, by specifying which programs your kids have access to, they won't be able to automatically use any program that they download from the web without your knowledge.

To specify which programs your kids have access to

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Parental Controls, click On, enforce current settings.

  3. Click Allow and block specific programs.

  4. Click <Person's name> can only use the programs I allow.

  5. Select the programs that you want to allow. If the program you want doesn't appear in the list, click Browse to find it.

Note

  • Make sure that you select all of the programs that you want your child to be able to use. Parental Controls will block any program not selected in the list.

Checking activity reports

Once you’ve got Parental Controls set up, it’s time to play a little Big Brother. You can review activity reports that detail your children's activities online. You’ll see a list of the most recent websites visited, the most recent websites blocked, files downloaded and blocked, and other information.

To set up and view activity reports

  1. Open Parental Controls by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, and then, under User Accounts, clicking Set up Parental Controls.

  2. Under Activity Reporting, click On, collect information about computer usage.

  3. Click View activity reports to see an activity report.

Picture of a Parental Controls activity report
An activity report shows what your child has been up to online

About the author

Picture of columnist Mark Carpenter

Mark Carpenter is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He spent his first six years at Microsoft working on documentation for the Macintosh product group. He's enjoyed the past two years seeing how the other half lives.

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